Laura Kipnis has written a new book arguing the obsolescence of marriage. As summarized by Meghan O’Rourke,

Modern marriage doesn’t work for the majority of people. The rate of divorce has roughly doubled since the 1960s. Half of all marriages end in divorce. And as sketchy as poll data can be, a recent Rutgers University poll found that only 38 percent of married couples describe themselves as happy.

What’s curious, though, is that even though marriage doesn’t seem to make Americans very happy, they keep getting married (and remarried). Kipnis’ essential question is: Why? Why, in what seems like an age of great social freedom, would anyone willingly consent to a life of constricting monogamy? Why has marriage (which she defines broadly as any long-term monogamous relationship) remained a polestar even as ingrained ideas about race, gender, and sexuality have been overturned?

Kipnis’ answer is that marriage is an insidious social construct, harnessed by capitalism to get us to have kids and work harder to support them. Her quasi-Marxist argument sees desire as inevitably subordinated to economics. And the price of this subordination is immense: Domestic cohabitation is a “gulag”; marriage is the rough equivalent of a credit card with zero percent APR that, upon first misstep, zooms to a punishing 30 percent and compounds daily. You feel you owe something, or you’re afraid of being alone, and so you “work” at your relationship, like a prisoner in Siberia ice-picking away at the erotic permafrost.

Rather amusing, but I have to agree with O’Rourke that this is rather simplistic and even more pessimistic than the data would suggest warranted:

Kipnis spends scant time thinking about the fact that marriage is a hardy social institution several thousand years old, spanning many cultures—which calls into question, to say the least, whether its presence in our lives today has mostly to do with the insidious chokehold capitalism has on us.

One would think.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. lefty skeptic says:

    The “half of all marriages end in divorce” statistic is misleading, as there is a smaller (than 50%) group of people who repeatedly divorce and remarry. And how does that 38% of married people who describe themselves as happy compare to the public at large? And the question was probably phrased as “Are you a) happy, b) somewhat happy c) mostly unhappy d) unhappy” in which case the 38% figure wouldn’t look so bad.

  2. Tripp says:

    Like Lefty says, asking marrieds if they are happy says nothing about marriage unless you compare the responses to those from singles.

    So why do people get married? Because they love their future spouses, and want to be with them. And what changes? The relationship.

    Capitalism is not the only force keeping people together.

  3. James Joyner says:

    LS and Tripp both make good points on the methodology. “Happy” compared to what is a reasonable question.

  4. Steven says:

    Not to mention that people will procreate, whether a society contains marriage or not, and someone will have to pay for said children, whether the economy is capitalistic or not.

  5. melvin toast says:

    I say we do away with all the failed institutions. This is the 21st century damn it! No more peace movement… no more UN.. no more immigration and drug policy… and no more child proof pill jars!

  6. JohnC says:

    Yea, no internet standards bodies either.

  7. kw says:

    It’s about time people see the reality that “traditionalism” in marriage doesn’t work. The idea of limiting yourself for someone who may or may not change the relationship itself is almost foolish. Better to make sure you have the RIGHT person. Too many people pick wrong and what happens? Scott Peterson, Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, Marion Barry….. shall I go on?

  8. steelkitty says:

    I agree with you kw. What are the advantages to such an institution???

  9. steelkitty says:

    I agree with you kw. What are the advantages of being involved in such an institution???